Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky, Cognition, & Language Acquisition

Biographical Information 

Noam Avram Chomsky was born the son of Russian immigrants on December 7, 1928 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He learned several linguistic principles from his father, William Chomsky, who was a Hebrew scholar. One of his fatherís publications was a scholarly edition of a medieval Hebrew grammar.

Chomsky attended Oak Lange Country Day School and Central High School in Philadelphia. Between ages 12 and 18, Chomsky learned about the socialist-anarchist New York City Jewish intellectual community and considered traveling to Israel to work for Arab-Jewish cooperation. These influences in Chomskyís childhood led into two lifelong subjects of great interest, controversy, and success; linguistics and politics.

Between 1945 and 1950, Chomsky attended the University of Pennsylvania where he studied linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. He was a student of Nelson Goodman, the radical-empiricist philosopher. In 1951, he accepted a nomination by Goodman as a Junior Fellow to Harvard University, where he conducted much of his pre-doctoral research.

As a student, Chomsky proofread Zellig Harrisís Methods in Structural Linguistics and developed sympathy for Harrisís ideas on politics. In 1953, he traveled to Europe. During this trip, he resolved that his own attempt to formalize structural linguistics would not work, because language was a highly abstract generative phenomenon. He went on to complete his doctoral dissertation entitled, Transformational Analysis. The major theoretical views of the paper appeared in Syntactic Structure, which, when published in 1957, would overturn all previous approaches to grammar and place syntax at the cutting edge of the discipline.

Since earning his Ph.D. in Linguistics in 1955, Chomsky has taught at MIT, where he now holds the Ferrari P. Ward Chair of Modern Language and Linguistics. Chomsky was married to Carol Schatz on December 24, 1949, and has two children.

Chomsky & The Cognitive Revolution 

During the 1950ís, Noam Chomsky wrote his first major work, The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, which would not to be published for another 20 years. However, a European publisher, who was excited about Chomskyís ideas, published a set of his lecture notes under the title Syntactic Structures in 1957. The book, after having received a positive review by Robert Lees in Language, was read by several influential people, including George A. Miller, whose work on information theory and short-term memory of the 1950ís are legend, and also key to the Cognitive Revolution. 

In 1958, Bernard Bloch, editor of Language, asked Chomsky to write a review of B.F. Skinnerís new book, Verbal Behavior, which had been published in 1957. Chomskyís review, published in 1959, was highly critical. He argued that there is more to language learning than imitation and reinforcement. Important observations he offered were:

 1.) There are an infinite number of sentences in any language; all possible sentences would be impossible to learn through imitation and reinforcement.

 2.) Children acquire language quickly and effortlessly, and at identical stages across cultures.

 3.) Words like goed, thinked, and eated are not spoken by parents; instead, children say these things because they over-generalize rules, such as this one for past tense.

Chomsky asserted that children learn the rules of language, not just specific responses, as Skinner had proposed. He asserted that human beings are born biologically equipped to learn a language, and proposed his theory of a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) Ė an inborn mechanism or process that facilitates the learning of a language. According to the theory, the LAD consists of brain structures and neural wiring that are unique to human beings. In this nativist theory, humans are born with the ability to
discriminate among phonemes, to fast-map morphemes, and to acquire the rules of syntax, and more. 

Chomskyís assertion that important aspects of language learning can only be explained adequately by innate mental processes forever shattered the empirical stronghold of behaviorism, which had dominated psychology for nearly 50 years. Chomskyís critique of Skinnerís Verbal Behavior, and pivotal work by George Miller, Jerome Bruner, Ulric Neisser, and others brought mind and thought back into the study of psychology. 

References/Further reading:

Baars, Bernard J. The cognitive revolution in psychology. New York: The Guilford Press.

Johnson, David M. & Erneling, Christina E. (Eds). (1997). The future of the cognitive revolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

Links to Chomsky on the web:

Chomsky's Critique of Skinner's Verbal Behavior
Chomsky's Home Page at MIT (Includes a bibliography)
The Noam Chomsky Archive (The political side of Noam Chomsky)
MITECS Abstract on Nativism By Frank Keil